When politics BECOMES religion

When politics BECOMES religion

Here’s a bold pronouncement:

The fastest growing “religion” in America isn’t Buddhism, Islam, or that age-defying voodoo powder that Tom Brady’s trainer sprinkles in his Gatorade. Not even close. Over the past decade or so, America’s fastest growing religion has been the all-consuming pull of politics.

A recent article in The American Conservative suggests something like this – and it isn’t limited to just the “Right” or “Left.”

Looking back to 2008, Timothy P. Carney argues that one thing many of the chanting, fainting, I-will-never-wash-this-hand-again supporters of Barack Obama had in common with the reddest of “red hats” is that they had abandoned church and transferred their religious fervor to political messiahs.

Politics replaced religion.

Based on research by the Pew Research Center, Carney states that:

The best way to describe Trump’s support in the Republican primaries […] would be: white evangelicals who do not go to church.

They came to Trump seeking what they had lost because they had lost church.

This claim is muddied by the fact that some of these devotees still claimed the label “evangelical,” though they had long since left church. In fact, the subset of Trump voters dubbed “the Preservationists” was the group most likely to say that religion was “very important” to them even while they were least likely to attend religious gatherings.

What meaneth this?

One way of reading the statistic would be to say that for some of these folks, it was not so much a case of politics expressing their faith as it was political fervor becoming their faith. (Read the whole thing here to see if you agree.)

It would be wrong, however, to say that this is just a MAGA phenomenon. My hunch is that something similar could be said of the far Left.

ET TU BERNIE?

It is widely known that this demographic is less likely to attend church regularly, or to claim a religious affiliation. The “Nones” are on the rise, we hear repeatedly. But is “None” really the most accurate religious descriptor for some of the most vocal members of the secular Left?

How many of these marching, chanting, constantly posting anti-Trumpists might also be said to have transferred their “faith” to America’s new national religion?

After all, a quick gander at the leading “news” sites (whether Right or Left) shows a form of ideological purity and boundary-policing that would normally be reserved for the harshest of fundamentalist sects. Heresy is a live category here, as is excommunication and the social media equivalent of burning at the stake.

WHAT IS RELIGION?

The first point to be made in response to my argument is that it would be unfair to accuse all passionate voices (on the Right or Left) of having adopted a new religion.

Theologians like myself should be careful about turning everything into a “religion,” as if my kids’ passion for fruit snacks and animal crackers should be read through the lens of Dionysius and animal sacrifice.

“Some” is the key word above.

Still, I stand by my claim that we sometimes define “faith” and “religion” too narrowly.

In my usage, religion (or “worship”) is the assigning of ultimate, transcendent value to a particular object, person, or idea. Along these lines, even famous atheists like Christopher Hitchens have long referred to Soviet Marxism as a de-facto religion. (Hitchens knew this from experience; as a young Communist, he had gone to live in Castro’s Cuba.)

My contention is that we sometimes fail to define “worship” and “religion” broadly enough. As Nietzsche rightly saw, there are more idols in this world than one thinks.

WHAT TO DO?

But what should Christians do in the face of America’s fastest growing quasi-religion?

An initial move should be to examine our own hearts and habits.  How much time do I spend perusing political news versus reading Scripture?  Would a quick scan of my Facebook posts indicate that I am most passionate about?  How often do words like “Left” and “Right” pepper daily my daily vocabulary?  Do I spend hours a week listening to acerbic talk radio or other forms of highly biased political content?

Then, three quick applications for the church at large:

1. Don’t baptize rival kingdoms.

An initial step would be a refusal to baptize the political dog in the ecclesial manger, regardless of the color of its collar.

In American politics, both sides have had tendency to care selectively about certain sins, while conveniently ignoring others. Both sides have tended to “bundle” issues strangely at certain points (e.g., justice for all and abortion on demand). And both sides have found church leaders willing to “baptize” their moves in exchange for access to power. I’ll forgo the examples.

In the words of evangelical historian, Thomas S. Kidd:

we should never want our church leaders to become partisan campaigners, regardless of the party in question. [This move] disrupts the unity of the church, and invariably turns the church into a servant of temporal power rather than the kingdom of God.

2. Don’t retreat to private faith.

On the other hand, it would be equally disastrous to respond to our hyper-politicized moment with a retreat from social engagement altogether.

“Religion as a private matter.”

~Said no one in the Bible, ever.

A “private” faith is an irrelevant invention of the modern world. Thus Christians ought to care about the issues God cares about.

For me, that includes pressing matters of justice like abortion, racial reconciliation, and many others topics.

At the same time, we must be sure to take our cues from Scripture more than from the talking heads of Cable News, or the self-interested bosses of party politics.

3. Don’t lose interest in the “seed” growing slowly.

My sense is that some Christians have simply grown tired or bored with the difficult and unheralded work of soul-care and The Great Commission.

And strange as it sounds, I get it.

On every news site and every social media platform, we are told repeatedly that political realities are the most important, most interesting, and most cringe-worthy aspect of life. Who isn’t tempted to believe it?

Politics is the laser pointer, and we are the frantic cats that jump to and fro at the whims of “owners” after ad revenue. Politics is the fast-moving, shiny object from which you can hardly look away.

By comparison, the “seed” growing slowly beneath the soil doesn’t seem as exciting. If the Kingdom of God is like leaven mixed with dough (doing its work in secret, without headlines, and without a 12-hour news cycle), then politics is like gunpowder. It turns more heads, makes more noise, and sucks up all the oxygen. But that doesn’t mean it’s where the actions is.

The challenge of Christ’s strange kingdom is to trust that the “seed” growing slowly is what really matters.

The gospel is the treasure buried in the field; it is worth selling everything to have; and it is more fulfilling than our new national religion of political fixation.


 

Interested in understanding the Big Story of the Bible? Check out my new book: “Long Story Short: the Bible in Six Simple Movements,” available with Video teachings to help church small groups.

Signup here to receive bonus content through my email Newsletter (“Serpents and Doves”).

I will not clog your inbox, and I will not share your email address.

When patriotism goes too far

When patriotism goes too far

Confession:

When I was in second grade, my favorite song in the world was the patriotic power ballad by Lee Greenwood: “God Bless the U.S.A.” I still remember singing it, with a lump in my throat, while reverently cradling my glued-together replica of an F-14 fighter jet.

The lyrics epitomized my second grade existence:

If tomorrow all the things were gone

I worked for all my life

And I had to start again

With just my children and my wife

I’d thank my lucky stars

To be living here today

‘Cause the flag still stands for freedom

And they can’t take that away!

That’s right! Try and take it Commies!

Later, I learned to play it on my saxophone.

And around that same time the Iron Curtain fell.

Coincidence?  You tell me.

The point is: I was VERY patriotic.

And in certain ways, I still am. I remain tremendously grateful to those who have sacrificed so that I can live in relative safety and freedom. And I am reminded of what a rare opportunity I’ve had to better myself through education, despite the fact that my family was not wealthy by American standards.

Yet as I grew older I began to grow more wary of certain forms of “patriotism,” and especially as I came to view the Christian gospel differently.

WHEN PATRIOTISM BECOMES IDOLATRY

In short, the problem occurs when patriotism becomes nationalism.

For sake of clarity, Ryan Hamm defines the terms like this:

  • Patriotism is simply love of country.
  • Nationalism is a love of country at the expense (or disrespect) of others.

What’s more, I’ve come to believe that the idea of a “Christian nationalist” is an oxymoron.

So here’s the question: When exactly does patriotism become nationalism, and what are some clues that Christians can use to recognize when our love of country has become an idol?

Four points:

  1. When we fail to see salvation as a change in citizenship.

The contradiction of a “Christian nationalist” is contained within the gospel itself.

To be “in Christ” according to the Scriptures, is to undergo change in primary citizenship.

As Paul argues, “our citizenship is now in heaven” (Php. 3.20). And we exist now as strangers, foreigners, and sojourners in our home countries.

To be sure, this did not change the fact that Paul himself remained a Roman citizen. Yet this identity (as with his Jewishness) was clearly secondary. Thus it is hard to picture him chanting “Roma! Roma! Roma!” while gladiators reenacted Caesar’s Gallic wars.

His primary concern was not to make Rome great again (let’s be honest, Nero was no Octavian), but to serve the King of kings.

Number two:

  1. When we get angrier at unpatriotic actions than at ungodly ones.

You can sometimes tell your idols by what makes you really angry.

In recent weeks, the internet has practically overheated over a football player who refused to stand for the national anthem as an act of protest. And while I’m not endorsing this behavior, I can’t help but notice that many Christians seem far angrier over this than over the spate of players who have been busted for serious crimes including rape, child abuse, and domestic battery. Why is that?

The point is not to endorse a lack of national pride, but to issue a word caution: When you get angrier over things that are deemed unpatriotic than over things that are violently ungodly, you’ve got a problem.[1]

  1. When we feel more kinship with unsaved countrymen than with Christians from around the globe.

While I don’t always agree with John Piper, I think he’s right in this:

Whatever form your patriotism takes, let it be a deep sense that we are more closely bound to brothers and sisters in Christ in other countries, other cultures than we are to our closest unbelieving compatriot or family member in the fatherland or in the neighborhood. That is really crucial … Otherwise, I think our patriotism is drifting over into idolatry.

The issue, once again, is one of primary citizenship.

Last point:

  1. When we are blind to the sins of our nation while being acutely aware of those of others.

Every culture and country has uniquely beautiful and uniquely broken aspects.

In America, I’m proud of our general respect for things like freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and democracy. I also celebrate our “can do” mentality, our constitutional design of a balance of power, and our stated belief (not always lived out) that all persons are created equal.

Yet a danger in patriotic pride is that it would overlook the uniquely broken aspects that are there as well. There must be a balance.

On a recent TV show, I watched a correspondent ask a group of political convention-goers to name a time that America was truly great. The responses were hilarious and deeply saddening.

It was amazing how many individuals took us back to the era of slavery or segregation as the time when America was really “nailing it.” To be honest, most of these folks were not intending to condone such acts, but they did portray a startling historical amnesia.

CONCLUSION

In the end, the solution to patriotism gone wrong is not national negativity but the power of the gospel.

In short, Christians must come to see salvation not just as a change of mind, a change of behavior, or even a change of final destination. In addition, it also a change of primary citizenship.

And (on a lighter note) for those still wondering if a man and his saxophone can change the world, I leave you this, and rest my case.

 

————

[1] Credit for this point goes to a former student, Matt Atwell, as he noted in a post last week.